RICHMOND, Va. — The eyes of politicos from across the country are fixed upon Virginia’s state capitol — this Jeffersonian temple — and the rest of the Commonwealth, as voters decide who will lead the state for the next four years.
In the months leading up to the election, the two major party candidates have struck similar tones on some issues, and in the wake of the divisive 2016 presidential race, candidates Ralph Northam (Democrat) and Ed Gillespie (Republican) had been praised for the civility of their debates, and the lack of personal attacks.
But in the last few weeks, the gloves have come off, and the tensions have sharpened.
Accusations of fear mongering and race baiting have flown from both sides. Campaign ads have portrayed the opposition as dishonest, unethical, or worse.
But what’s the truth about these two men? Where did they come from, and how did they get here?
From New Jersey to Virginia
When Gillespie won the Republican primary in June, he was given a second chance to claim one of Virginia’s most powerful elected offices, something he had nearly done three years earlier.
The son of an Irish immigrant, Gillespie was born in 1961, and grew up in Browns Mills, New Jersey, about halfway between Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore.
His parents ran a mom and pop grocery store. A picture of President John F. Kennedy hung in the family’s dining room, perhaps influencing Gillespie’s destiny.
After graduating from high school, he headed to the nation’s capital, to attend the Catholic University of America. Friends said that Gillespie was leading from the stands back in 1979.
An aspiring journalist, Gillespie was known for writing short stories about his friends. They also remember him as a relentless cheerleader, and a stellar athlete who played rugby and was “fast as lightning.”
“I don’t think anybody can out work Eddie, and definitely I don’t think anyone can out run Ed, and as you know I guess he’s still running,” said Joe Travez, who attended Catholic University with Gillespie; the two remain close friends.
And to help pay the bills, he parked cars at the U.S. Senate, a harbinger that life wouldn’t take him too far from the campus he loved.
“It was a great experience, we had Ed Gillespie, the future governor of Virginia, we had Brian Williams – the nightly news with Brian Williams – he was one of our dorm mates, and it was just a wonderful time there, it must have been the water that inspired so many people,” Travez said.
The formative years out of college
Both Northam and Gillespie have credited their early years out of college with shaping their journey toward seeking public office. Their paths have been very different.
Gillespie found his calling a short drive down Michigan Avenue from his college campus, when his career in politics began as an intern for congressman Andy Ireland, a Florida Democrat. When Ireland jumped to the GOP, Gillespie did too.
He met his wife Cathy playing on a co-ed congressional softball team. And a short time later, he found his political soul mate – Texas congressman Dick Armey.
It was under the tutelage of the future house majority leader that Gillespie would become one of the most influential voices and minds in the Republican party, and in 1994 he co-authored the “Contract with America” – a document of promises credited with helping the GOP pick up more than 60 house and senate seats during the mid-term elections of 1994.
Gillespie ‘always at center’ of Republican Politics
“I’ve known him in Washington since the 90’s, um, and he’s always been at the center of Republican politics, always and has been considered a sort of by now and the age he is a wise man in Republican politics, and so it’s interesting to, and has been, to watch a kind of strategist from the sideline then go onto the field,” said John Dickerson, moderator, Face the Nation on CBS.
Northam and Gillespie are now heavy hitters in Virginia political circles. It took years of successes and setbacks to get both men to the point of becoming their party’s nominee for governor.
Turn of the century, Gillespie meets tremendous lobbying success.
Gillespie co-founded a bi-partisan lobbying firm with Democrat Jack Quinn, in 2000. It became a massive success, with fortune 500 clients like Coca Cola, Microsoft, Verizon, Hilton, and as his opponents have pointed out, Enron.
‘Well certainly Ralph Northam has spent much of this campaign trying to make it into an expletive, calling him Enron Ed, trying to contrast Ralph Northam in his white doctor suit to a lobbyist for all kinds of issues and big corporations that people might not be initially favorably disposed toward,” said CBS 6 political analyst Dr. Bob Holsworth.
“Lobbyist is nothing more than someone who’s hired to be able to represent a broad group of people so that they don’t all have to go travel to Washington and go make their case known, you hire somebody to do that for you,” said former Governor Bob McDonnell. Gillespie was chairman of McDonnell’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign.
Leading the Republican National Party
In 2003, Gillespie became the chairman of the Republican National Committee and also became a fixture on cable news and Sunday morning talk shows.
One of Gillespie’s frequent sparring partners was Va. Governor Terry McAuliffe, another Catholic University Graduate who served as DNC chair from 2000 until 2005.
McAuliffe would later transition from strategist to candidate, first running for governor of the Commonwealth in 2009, and then winning in 2013.
“I do think that McAuliffe’s rise in Virginia politics prompted Gillespie to do the same thing,” said Joe St. George, former WTVR political reporter. “ I think there’s a natural rivalry between the two that goes back to their Catholic University days and the fact that they are both notable alumni, and I think when Gillespie saw the success McAuliffe was having in Virginia, he said, ‘I can do this, I want to do this.’”
In the summer of 2007, Gillespie joined the Bush administration at the White House, and served as counselor to the president until he left office.
A short time later, he received a call asking him to help Republicans take back the Virginia governor’s mansion.
The year 2009 was a turning point for both Northam and Gillespie.
The McDonnell years
In 2009, cracks were beginning to show in the façade of Virginia’s traditional red state status.
Barack Obama won the state in 2008, the first time a democratic presidential candidate had done so since Lyndon Baines Johnson.
For the first time in decades, the Commonwealth’s two U.S. senators were both Democrats. And the party had won two gubernatorial races in a row.
Attorney General Bob McDonnell had won the Republican nomination that year, and he was taking on Creigh Deed, a man he had narrowly defeated four years prior in one of the closest races in state history.
So McDonnell turned to strategist Gillespie to chair his campaign. Gillespie turned down a salary, though he insisted that he be “deep in the policies.”
“Gillespie’s a smart guy, uh, he plays the game well, he’s articulate, he’s well versed in the issues, and he knows how to make direct appeals to voters,” said Craig Carper, WCVE Senior Capitol Reporter.
McDonnell said his decision paid off, when a thesis written while attending Regent University 20 years prior began to make headlines. In it, he described working women and feminists as detrimental to the traditional family.
McDonnell remembers spending the night at Gillespie’s house, bracing themselves for the Washington Post the next morning,
“So anyway, it came out and Ed – of course I didn’t like it – and Ed was very calm, and said you know, here’s the points that are good, here’s the strategy we need to talk about it, and he just gave me a sense of peace,” McDonnell said. “You know, I was 20 years old, we’ll deal with it, I’ll be honest about what I wrote, what I thought, and we’ll go from there.”
McDonnell weathered the criticism that followed, and with Gillespie’s guidance, handily defeated Deeds in the general election.
“…I thought ‘I’m sure glad I have a guy that’s been in the crisis room of the oval office sitting here guiding me, a candidate for governor,’” McDonnell said.
While this current gubernatorial campaign has largely avoided controversy, both Northam and Gillespie are no strangers to it.
Both have drawn the eyes of the nation for being front and center during high profile political fights.
Gillespie takes on Senator Warner
In 2014, veteran political strategist Gillespie, who had spent years helping other candidates win elections, decided to become one himself. His target, U.S. Senator Mark Warner, was one of the most popular political figures in Virginia.
From the beginning, Gillespie faced an uphill battle.
“Initially many people thought Gillespie was not conservative enough to win the base in Virginia,” said St. George.
But the Washington insider convinced rural Virginia and other state Republicans that he was the man for the job, and in June of that year won the nomination at the GOP convention in Roanoke.
For years, Gillespie has crisscrossed the state, going to these events where there may be only a dozen people in the room –a Republican pancake breakfast in southwest Virginia, or bingo night in northern Virginia.
“A lot of times people will vote for someone that they have met, that they’ve looked in the eye, and that they’ve shaken their hand,” said St. George.
Gillespie trailed Warner in most polls for the entirety of the race, many times by double digits. On election day, pundits predicted a sizeable victory for Warner, but things didn’t turn out that way.
At the beginning of the day, everyone at Warner’s campaign headquarters thought it would be an easy win and early night, but throughout the day you could visibly see the staffers start to sweat and start to get nervous.
What was supposed to be an easy win for the popular incumbent, turned into a nail-biter.
Many parts of the state that had supported Warner in 2008, voted instead for Gillespie.
Warner would not be declared the winner until a day later, and when all was said and done, he and Gillespie were separated by less than one point.
Observers attributed some of Gillespie’s unexpected success to a strong social media campaign, and solid debate performances. And there were some regrets in Republican circles that they hadn’t given Gillespie more support.
“I’ve seen the man’s work ethic, he is tireless, and so when it came out to be a lot closer than we thought against Warner – who was viewed as being unbeatable – it really didn’t surprise me because I knew how hard Ed was working,” McDonnell said. “Honestly if he’d gotten a little more money from some of the national political establishment he might have pulled that race off.”
Experts also said there was someone else that factored into that election, a name that wasn’t on the ballot: Barack Obama.
“It was an interesting moment in time, it was the end, we were approaching the end of the Obama era and Warner was facing a heavy backlash against Obama era policies, and Gillespie partly on that, but mostly on I think his own merits, performed exceptionally well in that race,” Carper said.
“Democrats lost almost everything nationally in 2014, it’s amazing in some ways that Warner won re-election,” said Dr. Larry Sabato, Director, UVA Center for Politics.
Roadblocks to the primary
The June primaries served as a testing ground for both Northam and Gillespie. The road to becoming their party’s nominee was years in the making and did not come without roadblocks – and challengers.
In September 2015, aides close to Gillespie confirmed he was planning a run for governor.
He made it official the following month, after state senator Mark Obenshain announced that he would not run. At one point, Obenshain was seen as the Republican party’s next great hope. He lost an extremely close contest to Mark Herring in 2013.
But to many it was clear, this was Gillespie’s time.
“Remember, in Richmond, people care about the governor’s race, they sure are active in the presidential races and they’re active in the senatorial races, but the establishment, the political establishment in Richmond, this is their super bowl – the gubernatorial race – and for the Republicans involved in the Richmond GOP establishment, they want a horse that they can win with and after his performance against Mark Warner in 2014, they thought the horse was Ed Gillespie,” St. George said.
Gillespie faced several challengers, including Congressman Rob Wittman, State Senator Frank Wagner, Businessman Denver Riggleman, and Corey Stewart, the conservative Chairman Of The Prince William County Board of Supervisors.
Wittman and Riggleman would ultimately drop out, leading pundits to believe – and polls to indicate – that Gillespie would easily win the nomination.
But as Warner learned in 2014, what’s expected and what actually happens are often two different things — except this time, it was Gillespie playing the role of Goliath.
“I think the big surprise actually was how close Stewart came to Gillespie in the primary,” Holsworth said.
The anti-establishment Stewart – perhaps best known for his full-throated defense of Virginia’s confederate monuments – hit Gillespie hard, questioning his conservative credentials, criticizing his past as a lobbyist, and attempting to paint him as an out of touch elitist.
And while most polls showed Gillespie up by double digits before primary day, it turned into a surprisingly close contest.
Something McDonnell considered “a unique phenomena.”
“I think Corey found a way to use social media and grass roots politics very, very effectively, maybe a little bit better than the Gillespie campaign, at least for primary purposes but I think Ed’s using those same channels of communication for the general election,” McDonnell said.
Gillespie ended up winning by a little more than one point.
The campaign, and the unexpected debate
Campaigns usually expect the unexpected – but sometimes something happens for which no one has prepared. That happened on a sunny Saturday in Charlottesville.
On August 12, chaos exploded in Charlottesville and thrust the issue of hate, and the debate surrounding Virginia’s confederate monuments, to the forefront of the 2017 gubernatorial race.
A rally to save a statue of Robert E. Lee erupted into violence, with white nationalists and counter protesters fighting in the streets.
Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman, was killed when police say a white nationalist from Ohio intentionally drove his car into a group of people marching against the takeover of their town by white nationalist groups.
Both Northam and Gillespie have condemned the white supremacists and neo Nazis involved in the bloodshed, but they have taken different positions when it comes to the monuments.
Northam has said they should be removed, and put in museums.
Gillespie has said the statues should stay where they are, but that they should be placed in historical context so people can learn from them.
It’s far from the only issue the candidates disagree on, and in many ways, both men are the product of the current political landscape.
The current political landscape
“Our parties, in the modern period in America, have never been further apart. Democrats are to the left, Republicans are to the right, you can sprinkle in some populism as well, but they don’t agree on anything that really matters,” Sabato said.
But something both sides will admit to, is that this race is a test run for the next set contests in 2018.
“The reason the Virginia race is important is that the national parties are looking for what methods work, both to turn out the base, how to capture swing voters, how cultural issues play or maybe voters care not at all about the values and cultural issues but they care about the pocketbook issues,” said John Dickerson, moderator of Face the Nation on CBS.
Trump’s influence on the Virginia race
Virginia is one of two states electing a new governor this year. The decision for Virginia voters comes exactly one year after a man selling himself as a D.C. outsider shook up Washington.
The question remains, how will President Trump impact this race?
There is some empirical evidence to suggest the mere presence of a Republican in the White House is good for the Democrats.
“The president has been a factor for 48 years; here in Virginia, we call it The Curse,” McDonnell said.
Typically, the “curse” is that the governor will be of the opposite party of the president.
“[That] would favor Northam but I think that all of us now know that we take conventional wisdom with a grain of salt,” Carper said.
McAuliffe defied the odds four years ago, but if Gillespie is to do the same, he will have done so following a different playbook than he did in 2014.
“He is running a more values based campaign than he did last time, and so it’s a tougher constituency for Gillespie to run where he’s basically trying to appeal both to the trump voter but also a more traditional Republican voter and then also any kind of swing voters that might be out there, so for him the challenge is not so much money but the shifted landscape,” Dickerson said.
The president has tweeted his support of Gillespie, but has not campaigned with him. Sabato said that Trump is the president since “Watergate-burdened Nixon in 1973” not to campaign for his party’s Virginia governor nominee.
Observers said that has likely been Gillespie’s call, that the candidate has tried to embrace some of the tools, techniques and messages of Trump, without fully embracing Trump himself.
“Virginia was the one southern state that didn’t support Trump, and that in fact Hillary Clinton carried Virginia by more than Barack Obama carried it in 2012, and so that has made it sort of a tight rope for Gillespie,” Holsworth said.
Northam has been a vocal critic of the president, in the past referring to him as a narcissistic maniac and a dangerous man.
Though, Northam has recently said he will work with Trump on issues that benefit Virginians, Democrats are hoping the president’s low approval rating will drive voters to the polls.
Path leads to the same place
Northam and Gillespie have taken very different paths in life, but they have led to the same place. Tuesday, the journey ends.
In the days and weeks leading up to the election, each has had a former president campaign on their behalf.
Each has been responsible for attack ads, and each has been attacked. And both have had their donations and financial interests put under the microscope by journalists and watchdogs.
While the candidates’ positions and stances on certain issues have been criticized, the race has largely been free of legitimate scandals.
Friends of both Northam and Gillespie said that’s because of their moral and ethical traits.
“I just think it’s just a tribute to the character that he already had that was shown but he’s also just developed a balance and a maturity and a listening style that’s a little bit nontraditional, so in some ways he’s bringing some non-traditional skills to the position, but I think Virginians would sleep very well at night knowing that somebody with as good a judgment as Ralph Northam was their governor,” Kaine said.
The candidates are the opposite of the candidates who ran in 2016.
“Both Clinton and Trump had sharp edges, and people felt very, very strongly about them,” said Sabato. “If you know Gillespie and Northam at all, you realize they don’t really have sharp edges, some of their policy positions may have sharp edges, but personally they are amiable, they are easy to get along with, I think almost anybody would enjoy having a beer with either one of them.”